Pick up an actor in your car and drive off into the story â itâs theatre for the age of Uber
|Toronto Star 26 Jun 2019 at 08:36|
Last weekend I drove a rent boy to a rendezvous with his next trick. I also picked up a couple of stressed-out young women: one who wanted to be taken to a daycare, and another who led me on what I think was a drug drop.
OK, OK. So not everything in those experiences may have been true in real life. This is a theatre column, after all. But I really picked up three actors who directed me around streets previously unknown to me in downtown Markham and its environs, and who each made me believe in ten short minutes that their situations were really happening.
I did this as a test driver for fu-GEN Theatre Companyâs wildly ambitious show Fearless , which involves micro-performances for individual spectators in their own cars, and a web app which lets the show work, as artistic director David Yee describes it, like âUber in reverse.â
Fu-GEN is a Toronto-based company dedicated to reflecting Asian-Canadian experiences. This show âbegan as outreach, as a way to engage with the large Asian Canadian community who live in Markham, Richmond Hill, North York, etc., who we know exist, but donât make it downtown to see our work,â says Yee.
A company intern lives in North York and told Yee that she has a lot of friends near her âwho are just afraid to drive downtown. Which is something Iâve heard a lot before, but right then it sounded like a challenge to me.â
They chose Markham because, says Yee, itâs been âan ethnic enclave for Chinese Canadians as long as I can remember.â The goal of the project is to give Markhamites something new and curated for them, as opposed to âthe runoff from whatâs already hit the major city they surround,â says Yee. The 20 Fearless writers include Governor Generalâs Award winners Hiro Kanagawa, Jordan Tannahill, Guillermo Verdecchia, and Yee himself; a Siminovich Prize protĂ©gĂ©e (Christine Quintana); Dora Award winners Marjorie Chan, Anita Majumdar, and Anusree Roy; Toronto Theatre Critics Award winner Ho Ka Kei (a.k.a. Jeff Ho); and up-and-comers Amy Lee Lavoie and Nam Nguyen.
Fu-GEN commissioned these and other writers to author short scripts that address the themes of fear and fearlessness, and at the same time found a developer, Shawn Li, âwho works at Microsoft during the day, then builds us a weird little theatre-in-cars app in his off hours,â says Yee.
Yee calls himself the âengineerâ of the project, whose work involved much scouting and many test drives to identify locations and routes, as well as coaching the actors on their performances. He hesitates to use the word direction to describe that latter aspect of his work: âI know real directors, and I am not them.â It is the actors who âhave words to say, and guidelines for how to manage and caretakeâ the intimacy thatâs involved in the performances. âCredit where creditâs due, thatâs all their own exceptional artistry at work.â
From my user perspective I found the show streamlined and easy to navigate. In order to participate, you need to have a car you are insured to operate. You book online, choosing between a series of timed slots, and are given a link to an online app you can use from a browser on your phone (you donât have to download anything).
When the app goes live, photos of the 20 performers appear on a live map along with the titles and authors of their shows and a one-sentence description of the content. Once you confirm your choice of performer, the app guides you to their location â and you know itâs them because theyâre wearing a bright yellow backpack (and they know itâs you because youâve uploaded a photo to your online profile). The performer disappears from the live map during the ride and reappears once youâve dropped them off. You then start over by clicking on another performer photo.
Thereâs risk involved in all of this, but Yee says that safety was one of the core tenets of the project. âEvery aspect of this experience, from the ground up, has been built with both audience and performer safety in mind. Itâs a glass floor, kind of â a perspective normally only possible under dangerous circumstances, rendered safe enough to tread around in and really examine it,â says Yee.
âThose safety measures can also be used narratively and thematically,â says Yee. âHow eerie is it for a stranger to greet you by your name? It can be comforting or it can be unsettling; all that potential is alive in just having that information at hand. The writers had the choice to use that for whatever purpose is useful to them.â
In total I picked up three performers, and wished Iâd had time for more. I wasted some time whizzing all the way across town to pick up Daniel the rent boy (though it was worth it: this was the script by Kanagawa, Tiger Vanier Has Left the Building, and it is outstanding, as is the actorâs performance).
This concern about drivers spending a lot of time getting to the next encounter was a big finding of the test drive, says Yee, and has led fu-GEN to consider expanding the performance time from one to two hours for the showâs run this Saturday and Sunday (June 29 and 30).
The markers of success for this project, Yee says, will be affirmative answers to these questions: âDid we innovate the form? Did we engage and attract people who donât regularly attend traditional theatre? Did we pull off the magic trick, where this great big thing happens and people donât see the strings? Did drivers have meaningful connections? Did riders?â
To those who might find the prospect of such encounters challenging, Yee points out that âcomfort zones can be stifling and sometimes we need to step out for a moment of fresh air âŠ weâre human, and interacting with other humans shouldnât be a daunting thing. It is, I know âŠ But the alternative is that we stop doing it, and thatâs the scarier path.â